It’s Cloudy in a Cloud Forest

Yesterday I took a tour to Volcán Mombacho, the allegedly-dormant volcano that towers over Granada. The tour brochure suggested bringing walkable shoes, a jacket, mosquito repellent and water, advice that was soundly rejected by most of the rest of the tour group, to their later chagrin. But not by me. I also brought sunscreen, food, pens, paper, a GPS and a hat. It’s my Alaskan survival instinct. I cannot go to the mall without taking a week’s worth of freeze dried food and signal flares. Hadas will back this up.

Also: “Volcán Mombacho” would be a great name for a professional wrestler.

The tour was to begin at 9:30 a.m., and it was a short walk over to the office, where I paid the fee and met our guide, David (pronounced Da-VEED), and our driver, Javíer (pronounced Javíer). Another couple was also waiting there for the tour, a lovely young pair from London. We made introductions and the three of us piled into the back of a four-wheel drive vehicle that seats six comfortably. David told us we were going to pick up six more people.

We took a couple loops around Granda picking up the rest of the tour participants. The cast of characters included another young couple from London, a couple in their late 60s from the North Carolina coast, and a doughy couple from Atlanta that looked like a chunky Amy Adams and a dorky Phil Mickelson.

The nine of us were squeezed into the back of the 4WD vehicle on two benches that faced each other, a bit like a prison transport vehicle only with less random shivving. David launched into a lengthy and painstakingly-detailed explanation of what we would do on today’s tour, leaving out absolutely nothing. I’m not certain, but I think he was being paid by the word.

During the drive we all made introductions and small talk. One of the Brits played bass in a band. “Just like Sting!” said the grandmother from North Carolina. Dork Mickelson groused about trying to order breakfast in English. Apparently Nicaragua did not change its official language to English just because he showed up and wanted flapjacks.

After 25 minutes of driving, most of which was spent with David telling us what we were going to see on the tour, we reached the base of the mountain. Because the road up to the top is a narrow cobblestoned affair, we had to stop and check in at the main booth so they could radio ahead and make sure that nobody was coming down at the same time. We turned off the air conditioning (the engine needed all the power it could get), slid open the windows and cranked into first gear. Up the mountain we went. Thanks to the power of gravity, inertia and cobblestones, we got to know each other real well during the next 15 minutes.

David, who had given up the front passenger seat to Grandpa North Carolina, was now sitting in the back, and as I wedged into him like a teenage boy at a drive-in movie, we cheerfully conversed in my very bad Spanish. Eventually he decided to teach me some popular Nicaraguan slang aphorisms. Either my Spanish is very fuzzy, or Nicaraguan parents like to admonish their children: “The one-armed monkey that swims with a cat on its head, often enjoys licking peanut butter out of a horse hotel.”

About halfway up the mountain we reached our first destination, a coffee farm. There wasn’t anything we could actually see (such as farming, bean processing, roasting, separating, packaging, Starbucking, etc), but David gamely spent 15 minutes describing the process for us in painstaking detail, shouting to be heard over the bean sorting equipment that was in a building we didn’t have access to. We also got free samples of coffee to drink — neither I nor Sting are coffee drinkers, for those keeping score — and a chance to roam around the gift shop to purchase coffee beans, t-shirts or Nature Valley granola bars.

David and I popped into the bathroom at the same time, and he joked in Spanish that these were the nicest bathrooms in Nicaragua. Actually, I don’t think he was joking. They were wicked nice bathrooms.

We all piled back into the 4WD and continued our ascent up the mountain. After another 10 minutes we reached the visitor’s center, where we piled out for our hike around the volcano rim through the cloud forest. It was delightfully cool up at 1,000 meters, and also impenetrably cloudy. When clear, there is a spectacular view of Granada, Managua, Lake Nicaragua and many hundreds of square miles. We had a view of the following: clouds.

Gamely, we plunged ahead onto the trail, with David keeping up a running commentary about every plant in the forest. He spent a fair amount of time looking up into the trees to try to find us a sloth (spoiler: fail) and poking around in random bromeliads to try to find a salamander (spoiler: fail). He also pointed out a number of orchids, and seemed to be particularly interested in the tiniest of the tiny orchids, which he showed us with great gusto. I can report that a tiny orchid looks remarkably like “nothing.”

The niftiest thing we saw was a sensitive plant, the kind that folds up its leaves and retracts when you touch it, sort of like Little Shop of Horrors without the songs, dancing or Rick Moranis. We all got down and spent some time poking plants. I’m fairly certain we looked like morons.

Another development: socked in by clouds, and with the wind howling, it started to get rather cold. After suffering through 90 degree heat in Granada for four days it was pure bliss to feel the cool wind on my skin. The Brits, however, were shivering like they were in the Antarctic, and apparently none of them had heeded the direction to bring jackets. They were getting progressively more miserable, but gamely tried to put on a happy face as we reached an exposed overlook and stood in the howling wind to enjoy a spectacular view of the following: clouds.

Periodically we would pass another tour group and the guides would whisper to one another “Peresoso? Peresoso?” They really wanted to produce a sloth for us, but alas it was not to be. One of the tour guides was nicknamed Jackie Chan, because he bore a (vague) resemblance to a Nicaraguan Jackie Chan. David told us that everyone in Nicaragua has a nickname. We asked what his nickname was, and he sheepishly told us: Hombre Verde — Green Man. He asked if we could guess why. I figured it was because of his interest in the forests and plants, but it turned out to be because The Incredible Hulk was popular in Nicaragua when he was growing up and his friends used to call him David Banner. It’s a small world, folks.

As we stood around waiting for the clouds to clear (spoiler: nope), David didn’t hesitate to give us his opinions on a variety of topics including witch doctors, politicians and Costa Ricans. None of these were favorable. He also appeared deeply chagrined about the lack of a view, as if it was his own personal fault that a cloud forest was covered in clouds.

Toward the middle of the hike we reached the fumaroles, which are steam vents in the volcano. This immediately called into question exactly how dormant this dormant volcano actually is. One minute we were freezing our British tushies off, and the next minute we were standing next to a giant gaping hole in the ground with warm sauna-like air wafting over us. Let’s just say I’m not going to buy property on this mountain any time soon.

We then headed back toward the visitor center, passing through a narrow crevice that had been formed by an earthquake, to an overlook where we enjoyed a spectacular view of: more clouds.

The visitor’s center had a small snack bar and an impressive collection of dead snakes in jars, which made me lose interest in both snacking and hiking. [Note: Insert your own Samuel L. Jackson impression here.]

From there it was back down the mountain, accompanied by David’s running commentary on Nicaraguan food (the three local specialties are: nacatamales, a wholly-unique Nicaraguan version of the tamale; quesillos, a tortilla with cheese that you suck out of a bag; and vigorón, which is cabbage and pork rinds served on a banana leaf). David claimed that you cannot get good nacatamales in any restaurant, which makes me call into question its status as the national food.

Back at the tour headquarters I tipped David 200 Cordobas, which with the exchange rate works out to about .00000000001 cent per word.

That night, after a long nap, I went out for a walk around central Granada. I do a lot of walking at night in Latin America. It’s cooler and often hauntingly beautiful.

Today was a low-key day. I have a number of projects I’m working on while I’m down here, so I spent a good deal of time writing. At midday I ventured out in the sun to the supermarket and the Mercado to pick up some food and toothpaste and two different varieties of banana (cute and cuter).

Around 5:30 p.m. I made the world-class stupid decision to go for a run, figuring with the sun setting it must be cooler. It was not. It was 90 degrees. I huffed and puffed and sweated my way through a 3.5 mile run, to the bemusement of the citizens of Granada who made the international face for “What the hell is that gringo running around in 90 degree weather for?” It did not help that I was carrying signal flares.

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